icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Upstairs in my office, I couldn't help thinking about what Neale had missed out on by not having Black teachers. I speculated about the difference it could make for Tineesha and my other African American students to have a Black professor, someone who might be able to provide a better context for holding them accountable, someone who might more ably inspire them.

It was my practice to hold conferences with my students prior to the final revisions of their essays. Before our conference on the personal essay in progress, I'd read Tineesha's draft with pleasure. Her topic, a night of cruising the streets of Detroit, contained some vivid descriptions, but it seemed to need more action. I did my best to convey to her how strong I thought it already was. I made a few suggestions about where she might be able to give it more punch. When I got the final draft, I was disappointed to see that Tineesha had cleaned up some grammar and punctuation, but that she hadn't used any of the suggestions. I accepted that it was her story; I also knew that her previous experience with writing instruction, as with many college students, might have emphasized editing for conventions with little attention to making larger changes. Nevertheless, I felt I'd somehow failed her.

As we neared the end of the semester, it was clear that a few students could possibly fail the course. Not surprisingly, one of them was Tineesha. That spring, our entire town had embarked on its annual Reading Together Project. The selection was The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride. In March, a month before the end of the semester, there would be discussion groups on campus and events in the community, including a free jazz saxophone concert by the author. I had read the book and been deeply moved by it. I decided to offer anyone who wanted to improve their grade extra credit for reading the book, attending one of the events and writing their impressions of both. I made sure that students who were in danger of failing were aware of their status and encouraged them to take advantage of the opportunity. No one did.
I think I'd hoped that the fact that James McBride is African American would make him accessible to a student like Tineesha. When I read the book a second time years later, I realized that it might be of more interest to someone struggling with identity issues related to mixed heritage, which didn't appear to fit Tineesha's situation. Nevertheless, it could have been enriching, part of what education is about.

In the end, all of my students but Tineesha managed to pull their grades up to passing. It pained me to give her the only failing grade in my class. And in the end, I was left with questions, not so much about whether I'd done all I could, whether I'd failed this student, and whether my Whiteness had contributed to my failure. I was really more interested in myself and why I felt so strongly that I wanted this student to succeed and not only to succeed but to shine before the others in the class.


You think when you walk together through the everyday hardships and through tragedy, and you come out on the other side, that being family, belonging to each other, will never end. Neale's and my relationship did end after seven years. It ended for a lot of reasons, but we both agreed that it did not end because of anything that had to do with race. Every intimate encounter transforms, some more than others. When the encounter is over, the changes that have taken place remain. Over time their edges become rounded, and they are, perhaps, less visible, but they are there.

Neale expanded my world in so many ways through literature, music, and intimate acquaintance with people I might otherwise never have met. She expanded it, too, by giving me the feeling of belonging, so that in my classroom, I felt as if somehow my Black students and I were knit together by bonds that no one but me knew existed. Although I am no longer in an interracial relationship, feelings of belonging did not simply end when the relationship did. The feelings of having been "established as if native" in a group other than my birth group are still with me. They show up at times, but only inside me now, most of the time unbeknownst to the people around me, Black, White or Brown.

Something clutched up inside me when I gave Tineesha that failing grade. I experienced the zig of being the teacher, the one in authority, the one obligated to hold all my students accountable. On top of that, I was acutely aware that my skin says, "White."

I also experienced the zag of my naturalized self. I'm not suggesting that, by a process of naturalization, I have somehow become the opposite of an Oreo. What would that be, anyway? It turns out that Nabisco now makes a White Fudge Covered Oreo—white on the outside, two layers of black, and a core of white. But I wouldn't for a minute claim that any part of me is Black on the inside. Rather, I've had to admit to myself that I want for my Black students, more than any of the others, that they do themselves proud, do us all proud, be on time, not do anything that would give anyone around them the slightest excuse for believing in stereotypes. I know that when I express this desire, I expose myself as someone asking near perfection of them. I know that doing so is a completely unfair expectation, even a form of discrimination.

Most of the African American students I've taught, like Tineesha, have been female. Despite my admission, what remains of my naturalization makes me long to say to them with gentleness and fierceness what Black poet Lucille Clifton wrote to her daughters:

i command you to be
good runners to go with grace
go well in the dark and
make for high ground
my dearest girls
my girls my more than me…
I want for my Black female students, "my dearest girls," what I want for my own daughter, who is not Black: that they be "my girls my more than me," that they settle for nothing less. And I am silenced, because my naturalized self lies so far beneath the surface that it cannot be seen or heard. Yet I am quite sure that these are the words, or something very like them, that Neale would say if she could take my place for a moment


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


This is the final installment of "Naturalization," which was first published in Clockhourse and was notable in Best American Essays 2014.

On Friday, 3/29/24 the first enstallment of "A Good Stranger" will post..

Be the first to comment